View international organisations through their digital display window: A study on IO content and website management
- In the digital age where everyone searches online for information, international organisations (IOs) must learn to communicate better with their websites. Currently, only a few IO websites make important documents–meeting and conference reports of major IO decision-making bodies, adopted resolutions and decisions, or significant policy outcomes–available for visitors’ perusal.
- IOs create barriers for outsiders to follow their decision-making and organisational operations due to poor organisation and presentation of important IO documents on their websites. Negative implications include stagnating knowledge formation and transfer within and beyond these IOs, making these IOs a policymaking black box for outsiders.
- Bad practices include: Denying visitors free and public access to meeting documents, providing only incomplete collections of papers or utilising inconsistent document management systems over time.
- Good practices include: Creating an easier path for visitors to navigate, collecting all the documents on the right pages centrally and offering accessible one-click functions for downloading and filtering documents.
- Wider infrastructural considerations: Many International Geneva IOs and actors manage their websites through content management systems like Drupal and WordPress. The decision between using either should inspire a deeper look at organisational strategies on maintaining their digital presence.
- IOs websites function as their display windows. To complement their digitalisation efforts, IOs must start by making their digital display windows transparent, appealing and effective at relaying important information.
International organisations (IOs) communicate through their websites. They describe who they are, what they do and why their work matters. In this brief, we analyse organisations through their websites. Like x-ray in medicine, websites can tell a lot about an organisation from the availability of documents to engagement with the broader public. Unlike a glimpse of social media which is often the focus of communication studies, websites require a comprehensive, solid, and thorough approach. This research complements volumes written about IOs from political, legal, and other perspectives. This new angle will provide a fresh look at IOs as well as practical inspiration for reorganisation and more impactful communication.
In an age with an infinitely rich repertoire of information we call the internet that is forever expanding in size and broadening in content, anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of anything often first resorts to querying the omniscient search engines. They would use search engines to gain access to the digital copy of whatever they are looking for, be it a scientific concept, an unheard word, an unknown company or a famous yet mysterious international entity that produces the most influential global policies. It has become more than crucial for any actor that wants to adapt to this digital age to make their online twin as visually pleasant and informationally sufficient as possible.
IOs, many of which have long been established before the emergence of the internet, have been undergoing digital transformation. However, as they ‘go online’, many seem unable to systematically organise and present information on their websites. When it comes to their primary policy outcomes, resolutions and decisions, conference reports or other important documents, IOs tend not to make them available in digital forms. Some undesirable consequences include the lack of organisational transparency, inadvertent obstructions to knowledge formation within those IOs, and further obstacles against knowledge sharing among the stakeholders of the IOs.
We have observed this issue firsthand during our Geneva Digital Atlas project. Among many of the project’s goals was to track the presence, trend and permutation of digitally related topics in the official documents of Geneva-based IOs. Our objective was to understand how IOs gradually adopted digital issues in their agenda and provide evidence for digital transformation in the Genevan international community.
Our methodology was simple.
- We started by identifying the central or highest decision-making authorities within a list of 38 IOs and then locating their resource repertoires that contain official meeting documents and their decision-making processes.
- Then, we use the web-scrapping technique written in Python to download, process and transform all documents into machine-readable texts stored in databases.
- Finally, we conducted a text analysis on the collected corpus through natural language processing (NLP) tools designed and widely used in the Python community.
However, this path was ridden with hurdles we have now labelled as bad practices for IO document management and presentation.
Bad practices that create barriers to view
#1. Denied access: Lack of free and public access to documents
In the very first step of our methodology, we ruled out 28 out of 38 of the IOs from the analysis because we did not have access to any of the official meeting documents. Many organisations do not present meeting documents publicly on their websites, which could be understandable given the confidential nature of some issue domains. A few organisations only allow member states’ officials or (paid or non-paid) registered users to access documents. As much as confidentiality should be respected, we find that being unable to inspect the decision-making processes creates a blocked view of the IO, where outsiders cannot peek inside the black box that carries out critical functions in the international arena.
#2. Missing pieces: Incomplete collections of documents
For those that offer access to meeting documents for outsiders to peruse, their collection of documents is often incomplete. This could be due to the relatively slow-paced digitalisation of dated documents in many IOs. Since many IOs are established earlier than the internet age, previous records are often only available in paper format. This creates time gaps in researchers’ Internet-based analysis and additional costs to procure paper-format documents, digitalise them through scanning and optical character recognition (OCR), and finally analyse them. In cases where paper formats cannot be easily retrieved, researchers are left with incomplete data, severely compromising the quality of analysis and the impossibility of tracking trends through time.
#3. Puzzling navigation: Inconsistent document management systems over time
Many IOs seem not to have a consistent information management and presentation system, as far as the public eye can see on their websites. This issue could manifest in random gaps of missing documents, empty archives or broken links. It could reflect that no central administrative team is systematically collecting all the relevant documents for a meeting and uploading them or that the administrative staff needs to be adequately trained in the importance of a systematic methodology.
Moreover, the issue could manifest itself in multiple iterations of the document repertoire. As website building and database management techniques improve, it is understandable that some IOs would update their website appearances and functionalities. This, nevertheless, complicates the route to retrieving documents for users as they have to navigate through different versions of the website to locate the needed documents. It renders such a task more time-consuming and increases the chances of users missing out on specific documents or internal staff mismanaging the document repertoire.
A consistent document management system requires the document repertoire to either stay the same as the first iteration or be completely updated to the newest iteration.
Above are the general hurdles constraining researchers’ capability to analyse IOs’ behaviours and actions. However, not all of them perform poorly. We were dazzled by how pleasant specific organisations render information gathering to be.
Good practices that make digital windows appealing to visitors
Let us highlight several practices for information management and presentation systems of IO documents that would make the day of any website visitor.
#1. Easy navigation: Create an easy path for visitors to find your documents
Visitors arriving at an IO’s official web page are often bombarded with hundreds of tabs and buttons to navigate through. An IO could make this process relatively easy by creating a more straightforward route for visitors to locate important documents. Take the example of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) website (Image 1).
The top of the homepage (and every other page) shows all the essential tabs sorted in lists depending on your purpose of visit, a search bar, and a language switch tab. When you click on the ‘Partner & Collaborate’ list, it reveals a tab for ‘Calendar of meetings’ (Image 2).
What is helpful on this page is the straightforward presentation of meetings by the involved decision-making bodies and by topics. Every official meeting has been appropriately indexed and linked, allowing users to navigate according to their needs. Click on WIPO Assemblies to see how all assembly meetings are displayed chronologically, with temporal, geographical and modal information systematically presented. Furthermore, click on any meeting and observe the uniform resource locator (URL). Take the example of the links of the 63rd (A/63) and the 62nd (A/62) series.
The URLs of these two meeting pages are exactly the same except for the unique meeting ID. This simplicity gives an experienced website user enough information to know that they are on the WIPO website (www.wipo.int), accessing the meetings repertoire (/meetings/) in English (/en/) and viewing specifically the meeting of a given ID. Want to view the same meeting in a different WIPO working language? One simply needs to replace /en/ with /fr/ to access the French version or /zh/ to access the Chinese version. Want to view a different meeting? One simply needs to replace the unique meeting ID at the end of the URL.
The simplification (or, as programmers often call it, ‘beautification’) of URLs can seem tedious and inconsequential, but it renders user navigation much smoother and more accessible.
#2. Centralised collection: Put all your important documents together on the right page
As simple as it may sound, only a few organisations have practised it. WIPO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) are great examples of centralised document collections (Images 3, 4 and 5, respectively).
The above screenshots show the meeting document pages for the three organisations. All relevant documents have been catalogued, named and uploaded or embedded as links on the same page, giving visitors a birds-eye view of all they need to know about this meeting. All three organisations offer documents in all of their working languages. WIPO and ITU offer various formats (e.g. doc, pdf, zip) of the same documents.
#3. Simplified functions: One-click buttons that do wonders
On top of language filters, ITU even offers document-type filters (Image 7).
Additionally, WHO, WIPO and ITU all allow viewers to download all documents on the page with a one-click button. This saves a visitor the trouble of downloading each document manually one by one. Given that IOs meetings usually involve hundreds of documents, simplified one-click buttons increase the functionality of these IOs’ document pages and make for exemplary conduct that others should follow.
Choice of content management systems
Apart from analysing the user experience of IO websites, we dug a bit deeper to inspect the technical aspect as well. The digital scene in International Geneva is disproportionally reliant on the Drupal (Image 8) content management system (CSM), which is a technical platform for multiple people to jointly edit and create content for a website. For this additional exercise, we looked at 138 International Geneva actors to see which CSM they adopt. The distribution of the chosen CSM is as follows: 49 websites are managed via Drupal, 47 via WordPress, and 42 via other platforms (of which 5 are managed via Joomla).
Such a distribution seems to be unique to the Genevan IO digital scene. More than two-thirds of all websites in the world are managed via WordPress while Drupal only accounts for 1.7% (Image 9). The strong presence of Drupal in Geneva could be historical. Traditionally, Drupal was the preferable choice for mega websites with larger and more complex databases and major security concerns, such as those of the UN agencies. However, this has changed as WordPress improved in capacity and became popular among mega and security-sensitive websites as well. This is confirmed as among the biggest 10,000 websites ranked by Open PageRank Initiative, Drupal is used by 12.9% of them. However, WordPress remains the dominant CSM with a market share of 52% of these mega websites.
The discrepancy between the global and Geneva digital scene could result in undesirable implications for IO website content management. As WordPress continues to grow in market share, the range of plugins and the number of developers, Drupal seems to be stagnating. For example, the famed AI tool ChatGPT has been integrated into WordPress as a plugin while similar tools are not yet available for Drupal.
Organisations and actors in International Geneva have to make critical decisions about the technical infrastructure on which they base their digital presence. It would require the IOs and other actors in International Geneva to revisit some ‘given’ assumptions in web and digital strategies since these decisions are likely to be a complex trade-off among future developments, security, and usability. This insight derives from Diplo’s own experience when migrating from Drupal to WordPress over the last 3 years. It has been a complex process riddled with hurdles. A key takeaway is that when redesigning our technical infrastructure, we must address organisational, usability and management issues beyond a simple technical choice between two platforms (Drupal and WordPress).
IOs’ websites function as their digital display windows. If items are carelessly scattered around, visitors would have difficulty digging through piles of pages and tabs to find the information they need. A clearly presented website, however, draws more visitors in and allows them to stay and understand the organisation better instead of resorting to Wikipedia pages or third-party sources.
The bad practices we have identified pose challenges to both IO staff and researchers on the outside. Institution-wise, poor management of key official documents makes knowledge accumulation difficult as internal staffers cannot quickly examine past decisions and build on top of precedents. Tracking organisational changes and improving institution design becomes less efficient as well. Outside researchers, on the other hand, could not investigate the critical decision-making processes of the IOs and map out a clear picture of their behaviours in a time-consistent manner. This would hinder knowledge sharing in the long run and even solidify institutional inertia due to the lack of outside scrutiny.
We then presented several good practices we have seen from a handful of IOs that would fix the aforementioned problems. Not only would best practices welcome less frustrated visitors, but they would also complement the broader digitalisation effort that is ongoing in many IOs.
On the technical side, actors in Geneva will have to make strategic decisions in terms of their digital infrastructure. Whether to stay with Drupal as their CSM or to migrate to the increasingly relevant WordPress, the choice of which technical platforms to use should invigorate wider discussions on usability, robustness, security, AI integration and other aspects of web and digital developments.
As IOs enter the new digital age, their evil twin (online self) must follow suit!